Creating a strong pipeline of capable leaders — commonly referred to as succession planning — is one of the core jobs all executives and people professionals face. It’s not just their job to ensure success today, but to set the company up for success tomorrow as well. This means that an organisation must constantly have one eye trained on the future, and the people who will take it there.
Is there a better way to develop great leaders than by granting them time, advice, and insight from current great leaders?
I don’t think so.
Leadership mentoring is a tried and trusted method for developing the best leaders of tomorrow.
How mentoring develops future leaders
Imagine if you could sit down with your future self and ask for advice. You’d have some incredibly wise and valuable snippets to share with your current self that would really help you navigate the coming months and years — and enable you to better prepare yourself for what’s to come.
This is what leadership mentoring does for prospective leaders. It provides them with a forum for setting, discussing and disecting a path to leadership with someone who has walked that path before.
We all like to think of our journey as absolutely unique, and while there are of course some unique elements (including you), there are far more similarities and shared experiences between your path to X or Y, and someone else path to that same destination.
Because of this fact of life, many of the leadership challenges the leaders of tomorrow will face — the leaders of today have faced.
Learning from seeing
Leadership mentoring enables mentees to see what great leadership looks like, as the mentor is technically leading them; using soft leadership skills to effectively communicate; leadership skills to encourage them and drive them forward, and hard leadership skills to hold them accountable for real progress.
Feeling how the mentor coaches and mentors the mentee through the process enables the mentee to learn about people management, discover how they like to be treated by a ‘superior’, and learn what type of encouragement and interaction spurs them to be the best version of themselves; the hallmark of great leadership and great mentoring.
Learning from doing
Mentors also provide mentees looking for improved leadership with development tools, activities, and practical suggestions for transitioning to becoming a better leader.
Mentoring isn’t just about coffee, chatting, and the odd bit of verbal advice. Great mentors spur proactivity in mentees and encourage them to participate in activities, tasks and events that better prepare them to achieve their overarching goals.
A good mentor will know how to draw a mentee out of their comfort zone into more leadership-oriented environments and scenarios and can talk with a mentee about how they can address certain scenarios they are encountering in real-life, putting leadership skills into real-life context and real-life practice.
Networking and sponsorship
In addition, a great leadership mentor naturally has a great network of leaders. He or she can certainly push a high performing and/or diligent mentee in the direction of other leaders who can help you develop and manage your growth.
The leadership mentor likely has some power or influence at their organisation or in their friend circle to sponsor the mentee into a leadership role, should that be appropriate and fruitful for the mentor’s own reputation.
As a mentee, however, you shouldn’t enter into a mentorship with the intention of asking them for sponsorship or networking favours. This is something which naturally evolves over time — and happens organically when you do the right things.
How mentoring cultivates current leaders
Mentoring has historically been seen as a pretty one-sided affair, where the mentor volunteers their time at a cost (their time), and the mentee profits with advice, insight etc. In recent times, however, this notion has shifted.
The benefits of being a mentor have become almost equally valued and sought after — for a number of reasons.
One of the reasons is that in today’s rapidly evolving workplace, mentees can actually mentor the mentors.
More and more executives, managers, and leaders are leaning on their younger and less experienced colleagues and networks to understand new technologies and consumer preferences straight from the horse’s mouth.
Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, popularized reverse mentoring in 1999, when he required 500 of his top executives to pair up with junior associates for the purpose of learning how to use the internet.
Reverse mentoring is a great way to use existing company resources to bolster tech savviness in senior colleagues — and also helps to connect different demographics and age cohorts, who don’t always understand or support each other as much as they could.
Holding up the mirror
It’s long been known that one of the best ways to test your knowledge of a subject is to teach it. This mantra also applies to mentoring.
When a mentor talks a mentee through leadership scenarios and events, they are naturally forced to hold up a mirror to their own behaviour and leadership style.
Does the mentor advocate for a certain style of leadership that they fail to practice?
Does the mentor see negative tendencies in the mentee’s own managers which they themselves have exhibited or continue to exhibit?
How much can the mentor actually explain about being a leader? How introspective and self-assessing has the mentor been over their own career?
These are all questions which are naturally surfaced when a mentor talks to a mentee about leadership.
Interacting with different types of people
Mentoring is also different from management in that a mentor can elect to support and advise mentees outside of the group of people they are forced to manage on a daily basis.
While a number of mentors elect to stay inside their domain and sphere of influence, they can (And should) elect to expose themselves to a variety of people and different types of personalities and leaders.
In fact, a number of mentor movements including #MentorHer have pointed to the fact that it is the responsibility of male leaders to mentor more women. And the same idea stands for other underrepresented groups.
This type of leadership mentoring serves the mentor extremely well, as they get to interact with different types of people and broaden their own horizons. And it’s also the right thing to do.
How leadership mentoring levels the playing field
One of the known reasons that there is an underrepresentation of certain groups and individuals at the leadership level is that these groups simply don’t have the mentoring, sponsorship, or support networks required to get there.
It’s also harder for them to seek out examples and inspiration in a world where people like them have struggled to blaze that trail in the past.
Leadership mentoring, at the individual level and organisational level, truly levels the playing field for all people.
When female leaders mentor prospective female leaders, they can speak to what it took to break through the glass ceiling.
When male leaders mentor female mentees, they can talk about what they have seen work in leadership, and break down the male cognitive siloes and heuristics which feed into the current and viscous leadership cycle.
When ethnic minorities are mentored by people who look and sound like them, they understand that they can get there too.
Leadership mentoring (and sponsorship) provides underrepresented groups with the exact arsenal and cognitive fuel they need to push through obstacles and make it into leadership positions – where they can mentor, give back, and jolt the status quo and tired paradigm of leadership we have to come to know — and not necessarily love.
Actively mentoring for diversity and inclusion is a responsibility of all of us.
Would you like to run a leadership mentoring program at your organisation, and help build a full leadership pipeline and bullet-proof succession plan?